The word means catamite, a young man kept by a pederast. (It comes from the Yiddish word for gosling.) The story goes that Dashiell Hammett included it in The Maltese Falcon hoping that editor Joseph Shaw, fastidious about "vulgarisms," would be ignorant of its meaning and let it stay in. He did:
“Hammett laid a trap for Shaw. In his next story he included the term gooseberry lay. Shaw pounced on this and rejected it, though it wasn’t a rude term at all but tramps’ slang for stealing washing off clotheslines to sell. But Hammett also included gunsel in the story, which Shaw left in, thinking it meant `gunman.'”Here's the passage from The Maltese Falcon:
“`Another thing,' Spade repeated, glaring at the boy: ‘Keep that gunsel away from me while you’re making up your mind. I’ll kill him.'”Knowing the word's real meaning lends a chilling edge to Gutman's treatment of Wilmer.
Who else has done this? What other writers have fooled us into thinking that usages they made up were, in fact, established terms?
© Peter Rozovsky 2011